It’s only 10 AM, but you’re already slumped in your office chair, staring dazedly at your computer screen. You’re so exhausted that you can barely focus on your long list of pending deadlines. You feel drained—physically and emotionally—from days of overwork. Is it Friday yet?
Unfortunately, it’s 10 AM—on Monday.
Sound familiar? If so, you may be suffering from weekend-warrior, work-life overload—just as I did for many years.
It looks something like this: After a week spent juggling myriad projects at the office, your weekends are somehow even more stressful and harried as you try to cram in leftover work tasks in between neglected personal responsibilities, like cleaning the house and spending quality time with loved ones.
The consequences? Before you know it, that Monday morning zombie routine is your new, permanent, ugly reality.
But there is hope. You can have better work-life balance. And it starts with taking back your weekends, which is something I finally learned to do—with much-needed help from some time-management gurus.
Since the day my four-year-old son was born, I’ve been a self-employed mom. So while he’s at preschool during the week, I work from my home office. But since I typically pick him up by 11:30 AM, he ends up spending a lot of time with me—making it difficult to run errands or finish all of my assignments.
On the weekends, my husband and I share parenting responsibilities, so I have a little more downtime than usual—and until recently, I invariably spent this time running in circles, trying to squeeze in too much at once.
Here’s what a typical Saturday morning looked like: As soon as my husband and son left the house for a playground excursion, I’d throw a load of laundry in the wash and unload the dishwasher. In the middle of those tasks, I’d remember another to-do, like running vinegar through the coffee pot for a cleaning.
Realizing it was getting late in the morning, I’d suddenly feel a sense of urgency to start my yoga practice before they returned. But about 20 minutes into yoga, the load of laundry I’d started was ready for the dryer, so I’d hit the pause button on yoga to change over the laundry—but not before checking work email on my smartphone, rendering it nearly impossible to recapture my yoga focus.
Before I knew it, my husband and son were home—and my only real accomplishment was making myself as frazzled as humanly possible. I’d try to wind down by going to dinner or a movie in the evening, but the whole time I’d be nagged by a chorus of “shoulds:” I shouldn’t be eating at this fancy restaurant. I should be folding that laundry. I shouldn’t be thinking about laundry.
Enough was enough. I needed to figure out a better way to spend my weekends—to enjoy them again, tackle my to-do list, and sneak in some relaxation. So I decided to do some reconnaissance, turning to time-management pros for advice.
The Secret to Taking Charge of Your Time Off
According to Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, the key to making the most of your Saturdays and Sundays is as simple as changing your perspective on planning. Many people think that “free time” automatically implies a lack of structure—or the freedom to forgo plans altogether—but that’s where they’re wrong.
The truth is that, whether or not you’ve penciled in an event on your calendar, you’ll still end up doing something. “And if you haven’t thought about what that ‘something’ should be, it probably won’t wind up being as meaningful or enjoyable as it could be,” Vanderkam says, adding that even a small amount of planning can have a big impact on your weekend—and even your wallet.
Take, for example, the simple act of dining out on a Saturday night. “If you plan ahead, you might score a reservation at that hot—but cheap!—Thai place,” she says. “But if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll show up, they’ll have a two-hour wait, and you’ll go someplace more expensive that you won’t enjoy as much.”
But even before you can start focusing on those weekend plans, it’s important to first set up a schedule for the following work week. So before you leave the office on Friday, Vanderkam suggests writing down everything you need to do when you return on Monday.
This way, instead of fixating on your to-do list over the weekend, you’ll actually be present while spending time with friends and family. “It enables you to show up Monday ready to go,” Vanderkam says. “You’ll have a more productive week.”
Once you’ve drafted your Monday to-dos, it’s time to strategize your Saturday and Sunday plans. In her book, Vanderkam shares the story of a couple who learned to embrace planning by making it fun: On Friday evenings they sit down with their happy hour drinks and list what they’d like to accomplish over the next two days. It’s a simple—but effective—way to marry planning and quality time with your partner.
Another key to successful weekend planning? Only prioritize the activities that are most meaningful to you—and avoid getting sucked into those “shoulds” I’d fallen victim to, says Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, a success coach and author of The Mommy Advantage: How Having Kids Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and Wealthier.
“The hidden saboteur of joyful weekends is guilt,” Luedtke explains. “It drives people to splurge on their partners, kids, or their own inner child to compensate for ignoring them during the week.”
That comment struck a chord with me. My husband and I are often too busy to spend much time together during the week, so there are many weekends when we end up shelling out for a fancy dinner because we think we “owe” it to each other. In reality, we’d probably be happier relaxing, cooking spaghetti, and eating at the kitchen table.
Armed with these new insights, it was time to heed the experts’ advice: My husband and I could no longer just “wing it” on the weekends. From now on, we would only spend time and money on activities that genuinely made us happy.
My New and Improved Weekend Persona
We started with a brainstorming session: What did we want to accomplish during the weekends for ourselves, for our son, and as a family? And what to-dos should we commit to each weekend—without exception?
It didn’t take us long to realize that we needed to make our individual athletic activities a priority in order to maintain our sanity. I value morning runs and regular yoga practice; my husband needs to squeeze in a bike ride or trip to the gym. As for our son, my husband would take him to swim lessons, so he could have fun with other kids while simultaneously bonding with his dad.
Next, we each made a list of activities we’ve always wanted to do in the Columbus area—everything from visiting the State House (Ohio’s house of government) to hiking local trails. This way, when we’re at a loss for something to do, we can choose one of the items on the list, instead of defaulting to something that’s less fulfilling.
The best part about our new approach to free time is that I no longer feel guilty about the way I spend my weekends, and those nagging “shoulds” are basically gone. I don’t feel like my husband and I have to eat that fancy dinner because we’ve already spent the morning doing things that make us feel fulfilled and accomplished—whether that’s yoga, biking, or simply finishing up an assignment.
Going through these motions has also helped me understand what should have been obvious all along: There’s a limited amount of time in every weekend, so instead of cramming every possible errand and recreational activity into a few hours, I should only focus on what I can’t do during the work week.
For example, mopping is nearly impossible to do with a toddler in the house, so I make sure I do that on the weekend when my son is out with my husband. But I can unload the dishwasher while my son eats lunch at the kitchen table during the week.
And if I do plan to finish up work over the weekend (and I often do), I block off a specific amount of time on Saturdays for it. Just knowing that I won’t spend the entire morning lingering over a blank Word doc makes me that much more productive.
Daunting as the prospect of planning my free time sounded at first, following through has been incredibly rewarding. I now get the most out of my 36 weekend hours by treating them with the same amount of strategy—and respect—as those precious Monday through Friday hours.
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